Very Male and Very White: State Supreme Courts at Odds With Demographics

MANHATTAN (CN) — State supreme courts remain overly represented by Caucasian men, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice reported Thursday, saying nearly half of all high court benches have an all-white bench.

The study paints a picture of a state judiciary that is increasingly out of sync with state demographics.

While Caucasian men represented only 30% of the national population in 2018 but occupied 55% of the seats on state high courts in 2019, the study found. Meanwhile, men and women of color, as well as Caucasian women, represented their demographics less often than their national populations, with 22 states having no people of color at all on their high courts.

A scene from 2015 oral arguments at the Texas Supreme Court. Pictured from left on the bench are Justices Don Willett, Paul Green, Nathan Hecht and Eva Guzman. People of color accounted for just 11% of the court last year, and women accounted for 39%. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)(The Associated Press)

In the case of women in color, they represented about one-fifth of the U.S. population but filled only 7% of state supreme court seats in 2019, the study found.

The study found only six states with high courts made up of a greater number of people of color than their state population: California, Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

A similar study by the Brennan Center in 2019 found similar makeup of state high court seats. In the last nine months, as people of color gained only half a percentage point.

Meanwhile state supreme courts have filled 14 of 19 openings, with half of the spots going to Caucasian men. Four Caucasian women, one African-American woman, and two Native American judges — one male, one female — made up the remainder of the filled seats.

The gender gap also remains relatively high, the study found, with women holding just over one-third of all state supreme courts despite representing more than half of the U.S. population. Caucasian women on the bench have a significant advantage over women of color, the study found, representing 29% of state high court seats versus just 7%, respectively.

Some states that have traditionally fared poorly have made some recent inroads: Delaware, for example, appointed its first African-American supreme court justice, Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, last month. Montgomery-Reeves is one of only two black female justices on any state high court.

Other states have further to go to match their population demographics. Florida currently has neither a female nor an African-American justice on its high court; its seven-member bench currently has two vacancies. One sitting Florida justices is a Hispanic man, while former Justice Barbara Lagoa — a Hispanic woman — was confirmed late last year to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

State courts also seem to lag behind federal courts in terms of diversity.

Of the roughly 870 federal court judges nationwide, 454 are women, representing more than half the total Article III judgeships, while 223 are African-American, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

The lack of diversity in judgeships has caught the eye of the most prominent judiciary members in recent years.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in 2016 said that, because “people bring their backgrounds and experiences to the job,” diverse courts were desirable.

“People look at an institution and they see people who are like them, who share their experiences, who they imagine share their set of values, and that’s a sort of natural thing and they feel more comfortable if that happens,” Kagan said.

Another justice to lament the lack of diversity on the bench was the now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. In his 2015 dissenting opinion over the legalization of same-sex marriage, Scalia decried the lack of any Protestant Christians on the U.S. Supreme Court, calling it “strikingly unrepresentative” of the U.S. population as a whole.

Deciding the policy question of legalizing same-sex marriage “by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentataive panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation,” Scalia wrote in his opinion.

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